First up, gotta say that Kenneth Lonergan’s new movie, Margaret, p***ed me off no end. Overly long, convoluted, confused, aimless, airless, achingly self-conscious, and it’s led by Anna Paquin. Who hails from the Ewan ‘Jim Fixed It For Me’ McGregor School of Smirky Acting. The reviews from the serious critics have all been very positive though, so, I’m probably wrong.
Part of the reason for the praise though is no doubt connected to the fact that, having shot the film in 2005, its writer/director spent the next six years battling with the studio over the edit. Martin Scorsese was called in, apparently, along with his long-time editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, and that’s the 150-minute edit that’s opening in Ireland this weekend. When I met up with Lonergan – in Dublin for the film festival – he looked unwashed, and somewhat slightly dazed. I was told just before sitting down with him that our Ken was tired of talking about the six years in editing hell. Besides, there was a court case looming about said post-production troubles.
First, a little history on the man himself. A noted playwright, Lonergan’s first play, The Rennings Children, hit the stage in 1982, when he was still an undergraduate. Later work, such as This Is Our Youth and the more recent Lobby Hero, have seen him pick up awards, and generally glowing reviews, along with all-star casts. His debut film, 2000’s You Can Count On Me, was similarly lauded, and awarded.
Margaret is only Lonergan’s second film, and in this ambitious Altman-esque drama, Paquin plays bohemian brownstone brat Lisa, dealing with all the glorious, self-righteous confusion of adolescence when she witnesses a fatal accident. A fatal accident this crazy kook may have actually caused. Lying at the scene to save the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), Lisa is later racked with guilt, and decides she must do the right thing.
I began by asking Lonergan if the Gerard Manley Hopkins’ 1880 poem Spring And Fall: To A Young Child – quoted by Matthew Broderick’s teacher in the film, and the source of the film’s title – was the inspiration here.
The poem came later on,” replies Lonergan. “It was fairly on, when I was writing. It’s a story that I had wanted to write for quite a long time, actually. I had the general idea ten years before I started working on it, but I had ten other projects that I was already working on, so, it had to wait.”
It’s a story that touches on many things – the Middle East, the insecurity of actors, teenage lust, self-confessed “over-privileged liberal Jews”, New York’s finest, morality, sexuality… did you have a clear road map from the beginning? Yeah, there was a map. I wanted to try and do a film where the character’s life continued on in full while the main story was going on. It just struck me as an interesting thing to do; I hadn’t seen it done before. Usually, in a film, you see someone who works in a bank, and they get involved in a romance or a robbery, or a murder, and then you just see them dealing with that. And I always wondered, well, what do they do all day at the bank? Or if it’s a movie about a child or an adolescent, they still have to go to school. So, I wanted her whole life to go forward while this was going on. That meant trying to show every aspect of her life as it went on, and that means showing her father, and the boy that likes her but she doesn’t like, and then the boy that she does like, and her girl friend, and her teachers, the whole thing. And that naturally folded into the idea of her discovering the world is a much bigger place than you think it is when you grow up on the upper east side of New York.
Did you feel the need to make Lisa sympathetic? She’s pretty confused, and contradictory, and very, very teenage… The audience has to like her enough to care about what happens to her. But, beyond that, I don’t think it’s necessary. I just want her to be a real person. But, if you don’t care about her, it’s impossible to follow the story. I’ve heard a lot of people say that she isn’t a very likeable character. She’s quite belligerent, and she’s very cruel to her mother – which is something most teenagers do, at some point – and it comes at a particularly bad time for both of them. On the other hand, she tries extremely hard to rectify a situation that she feels she’s responsible for, and whether she does a good job or not, she wades her way through policemen and lawyers, and meanwhile, is unaware that she is looking for this sexual punishment for what she’s done by sleeping with these different people. She’s way too young for that. So, although her approach is akin to a bull in a china shop, I actually admire her for what she’s trying to do. I like her, and I don’t mind that she’s a bit of a bully to her mother, but then, who hasn’t been?
Partly because of the six-year struggle to get this film out of the editing suite, Margaret has become something of a cause celebre. Are you actually happy with it? I do like the way the film came out, very much. And yeah, when it opened in the UK, and simultaneously, there was this internet campaign, just lobbying for it, I was just bowled over. I mean, I don’t want to sound phony-humble, but honestly, it was very, very much moving, and touching, and encouraging, and wonderful. How else could one respond? Delighted, that people were that interested to see it.
Has your relationship to the film changed over those years? Everything I’ve ever worked on changes, you work on it for so long. It’s the same in the theatre; takes two years to write it, then after the first rehearsal, the first production, the second production, and by that time, it’s out of your system. With a film, you have to watch it so many times, not just in the editing, but technically, doing the colour timing on it, the sound mix, and so on, so, I have seen these scenes not hundreds of times but thousands of times. I still enjoy watching it, but it’s more from an outsider’s point of view than an insider’s point of view. I’m not the same person I was when I wrote it, or shot it, or edited it. It’s interesting. It’s why you can’t go back and rewrite your old plays and make them better, because you don’t know anything about them anymore. You can’t get inside them again, because you’re not 25 anymore, and you don’t see the world in the same way. And the same thing happens with film.
Given your success in the theatre, would you have a preference for that smaller, generally warmer world? I’ve been working as a screenwriter for nineteen years, and I’ve been doing theatre of one form or another since I was in high school, and so, I’ve had a lot of experience in the theatre world, but not a lot in the film world. Two films is not a lot when it comes to directing. Personally, I love movies, but theatre is a somewhat gentler place. There are fewer people involved, there’s less panic about money, the general atmosphere is less frantic, or pressured. And there aren’t millions of dollars at stake; at least, not with my plays [laughs]. And there’s foolishness and people you don’t want to deal with in the theatre, just as in the film world, but let me put it this way, if I see a rehearsal room, I get a warm feeling. If I go past a film set on a street, I get a cold shiver down my spine. And I think, my God, 14 hours, and no sleep, and everyone’s tired, cold, hungry…
How is your ego after this recent experience? Well, I also wrote and directed a play, two years ago, called Starry Messenger, with Matthew Broderick, in New York, which I enjoyed. It was a very short run, but I really enjoyed that, quite a lot. And I’ve been writing quite a bit during all that time. My ego is well-fed and nourished, just like everyone else’s. It’s sort of at par with everyone else’s.
Do you feel slightly wary now of the film world. I saw Father’s Day, with Ashton Kutcher, listed for 2008, but that never materialized… That was just a rewrite job that I had. I did some work on that script, and that was just a money gig. Which I do, but I try my best. I enjoy doing that kind of work; I can try and help someone else with their movie, and then I can walk away from it, and feel like I’ve done a good job. And if they want to change it, that’s fine. It’s a little less of an emotional commitment, and a little more of a craftsperson job.
When it comes to your own work, are you keen to work in film again any time soon? Well, I’m finishing a play at the moment, that I’ll be directing in April, at the Signature Theatre in New York, and I have another play that we’ll be doing next season, Phil Hoffman directing, and Mark Ruffalo is going to be in it. And I’d also like to do another film, I’m just not sure what. There are a couple of different prospects, but I’m just not sure which one, and how it will fit in with my theatre schedule. But I would certainly like to do another movie. I might do a movie of The Starry Messenger, and I’m thinking about Lobby Hero too. There are two other scripts I’ve started on, and I’ll see if they’ll come to fruition.
Talking with the very lovely Lynn Shelton a few days ago, for her new film, Your Sister’s Sister, she said that she was happy to stay in Seattle and make her small films, rather than sell her soul to Jerry Bruckheimer. Has your position on working with Hollywood changed now? I don’t know. Truthfully, every time I need a job, or I’m trying to get something made, everyone tells me, ‘Well, it’s not the way it was five years ago – everything’s changed’, and I’m sure that’s true, but I don’t know in what way, or what they’re talking about. I’ve tried to keep my three sides of my career separate. I make a living re-writing other people’s screenplays, when I’m asked to by the producers – I don’t do it to the writers, I’ve nothing against them; they’d do it to me, and I do it to them, so, that’s just the way it works. The theatre is the theatre, and with the two films that I’ve done, I try to keep them completely independent and separate from the other work that I do for other people. It’s worked out fairly well – not always – but I’ve been so entrenched making this film, I haven’t been out in the marketplace for a while.
You seem quite content – are you just glad Margaret is now out? It’s been a hard day’s night… I feel very happy that the film has gotten the response that it has gotten – it’s been very gratifying. And I’m also, you know… I try, try, to feel that if I’ve done a good job. I’m happy, and I hope that other people like it. That’s my moral goal. My ego doesn’t always permit that, but the people who like the movie like it in a way that’s very pleasing to me, and when you write something and you’re then gifted with these kind of performances, the wonderful work that these actors have done, and it’s all from something that I thought of in my room, in 2001, 2002, it’s impossible not to feel gratitude about that. Naturally, it would be nice if millions and millions of people enjoy it, but it’ll be more like thousands and thousands. But, I’ll take that.
So, you don’t need a hug? I feel very lucky. I don’t want to sound like a baseball player, but I do feel lucky. Besides, I’ve still got another interview, and I don’t want to end up sobbing all over your shoulder…
MARGARET is now showing in Irish Cinemas Words – Paul Byrne